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Sony, Microsoft set stage for gaming's next fight

It’s easy to believe that video gaming is the center of the universe at an event like E3, and nowhere does this Messiah complex get more extreme than the presentations by the big three: Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.
Sony Computer Inc. Unveils The New PlayStation 3 Platform
The new PlayStation 3 will come in three colors: black, silver and white.Stephen Shugerman / Getty Images

After hours of technical jargon at Sony’s pre-E3 press briefing Monday, Sony Entertainment CEO Ken Kutaragi stepped up to the podium. "Now I have the final and biggest announcement," he said to the crowd of thousands. He then stepped back to reveal, sitting on a pedestal, the Sony PlayStation 3. Or rather, three of them: black, white and silver.

And they looked like ... well ... the PlayStation 2. Only shinier. And rounder.

Hundreds of digital-camera carrying hands shot up in the air to capture the moment. In the darkened Culver City soundstage the cameras' digital displays reminded one of a futuristic variant of the old rock concert standby of raising a lighter to "Freebird."

Across town at Microsoft’s pre-E3 briefing later in the day, Xbox executive J Allard was reaching for similar prosaic moments, saying with a straight face that the gaming medium would eventually reach a billion people. That’s right, a billion people.

(MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

It’s easy to believe that video gaming is the center of the universe at an event like E3, where the tens of thousands of individuals who live, breathe and make a living off of video games gather to, well, live, breathe and make a living off of video games.

Nowhere does this Messiah complex get more extreme than the pre-E3 press conferences by the big three: Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. It’s as if the corporate officers and the goggle-eyed developers were talking about ending world hunger and not — gulp — toys.

But what toys! Both next generation consoles promise revolutionary graphics, HDTV capability, surround sound, digital media streaming and video conferencing.

These are the types of toys, according to Kutaragi, that "belong in the center of the living room." The Xbox 360 team shares the same vision.

How many living rooms do these guys think we have?

Razzle-dazzle graphics
True to form, Sony took a long time at its pre-E3 press briefing to drop its PlayStation 3 bomb. First came long digressions into Sony’s history as a leader in video gaming. This was followed by PowerPoint slides on the architecture of the Cell processor, the revolutionary chip created specially for the PS3.

Thousands waited patiently. A mixture of game developers, media, women with colored hair, the ubiquitous young bald Europeans in tailored suits and hundreds of conservatively clad Japanese businessmen, the audience listened to enough technical specifications to choke an electrical engineer.

Finally, the massive 2,000 square-foot screen behind the stage came to life with graphics rendered by the Sony PlayStation 3’s Cell processors and graphics processing unit.

Nvidia chief executive Jen-Hsun Huang took the stage to demonstrate the graphics processing unit his team built specifically for the PlayStation 3: the 300 million transistor RSX Reality Synthesizer.

And what did he use to demonstrate this technology? This being a video game conference, the key word is "zaftig."

What was most remarkable, beyond a middle-aged man publicly ogling a virtual women before thousands of people, was that the women was worth ogling if only for the realistic depiction of her face. Blemishes, shadows, skin irregularities were all as clear as day even from the nosebleed press sections.

More demonstrations of the PlayStation 3’s graphical power followed. A real world actor, Alfred Molina in the role of Dr. Octopus in the movie "Spider-Man 2," was given the digital treatment. Again, the facial characteristics were amazing, especially in the way the skin and eyes reflected different types of light.

A bathtub full of bobbing rubber ducks demonstrated water physics. Richard Marx, creator of the EyeToy, a camera that can be used with PlayStation games, then one-upped the demo by showing how the EyeToy could be used to manipulate the bathtub. Holding two cups in front of the EyeToy, Marx motioned as if he was scooping bath water from one cup to another. The on-screen graphics were amazing.

"It’s not just about how objects look, it’s about how they behave," explained Sony vice president Phil Harrison.

Game demos followed. Sony showed off the fighting game "Tekken," racing games "Gran Turismo" and "Formula One" and what looked to be a "Half-Life"-inspired shooter by Incognito Labs.

Lighting, textures, shadow, sparks, explosions: The type of qualities that serious gamers expect were viewable on a level never seen before. But it must be noted that many of the demonstrations were not in real-time, but were video presentations.

In all the games, a thousand little things to be happening at once. Water in a nearby bay shimmered in the background in a demo of "Unreal" while in the foreground two cyborgs battled it out, sparks flying. Several games involved massive armies. Imagine those Braveheart scenes with two armies clashing and then hundreds of mini-hand-to-hand battles taking place. That’s the level of detail shown.

PlayStation 3 is gearing for movie quality realism in its game graphics. But there’s another side to realism. Electronic Arts demonstrated the boxing game "Fight Night Round 3." A knock-out blow triggered an animation of the boxer’s face as he took the hit. The face supposedly has hundreds of muscles and the attendees saw all of them violently jerk in slow motion.

"Killzone," a first person shooter that was panned when it was released for the PlayStation 2, looks brutally real on the PlayStation 3. Too real, in fact. The urban warfare scenes make "Blackhawk Down" look like "Fraggle Rock." Still "Killzone" was nothing if not gripping. It was the one game demonstration that had everyone cheering.

It was that kind of ending to Sony’s pre-E3 press briefing that had Kaz Hirai, chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment America, confidently telling that it didn't matter that the PlayStation 3 would be shipping in the spring of 2006, several months after the Xbox 360 debut.

“Really, a half year difference is not that big of a deal," said Hirai. "We plan on continuing to lead.”

Across town at the Microsoft press briefing, the nervous optimism that bathed the Sony event was absent.

That’s because Microsoft skipped the E3 insider line last week to take its next generation console, the Xbox 360, directly to the people. Even if the nationally televised MTV special was short on the details most potential buyers would want to know ’ and way too long on B-list celebrities flailing away — the Xbox 360 still managed to capture the media spotlight nearly a week before E3 began.

The one important lingering issue, aside from pricing, was revealed early in the briefing when Microsoft’s senior vice president in charge of the home and entertainment division, Robbie Bach, announced that the Xbox 360 would be backwards compatible with Xbox titles — or at least some of them. Bach said the new console wouldn't necessarily run all of the older games, but would run the top-selling ones. Still, a heavy sigh of relief from the crowd as they discovered their purchase of the Special Edition Halo 2 wasn’t in vain.

And so the Xbox briefing was more like a frat party led by the Xbox team’s chief cheerleaders: Bach, Peter Moore, the accented chief of marketing, and Allard, whose youthful bald pate is recognizable to gamers worldwide. Although the hoodie-blazer combo Allard wore Monday night made him look a little too like Moby to be taken seriously.

The Xbox briefing, like briefings before, was primarily male. And not just male but the type of male given to wearing black T-shirts and cutting their hair in irregular patterns. This is not an insult, but a fact of life, and the Xbox team has been very diligent about nurturing their hard-core followers.

So it came as a surprise when Allard took the green-light bathed-stage at the Shrine Auditorium to announce that the Xbox 360 had bigger plans than just catering to that base.

"We used to fill the living room with kids and adults," said Allard, recalling the early days of video gaming with its cute two-dimensional characters. "Today, we seem to have one kind of consumer."

One could feel the primarily 18-to-34 male audience shift uncomfortably in their baggy camo pants.

Allard outlined a number of plans to bring the family back into gaming including a number of un-sexy (to this audience, anyway) references to arcade games and Web clickers like "Bejeweled." He also spoke of the number of ways the Xbox 360 will foster communication and commerce.

Whether the Xbox 360 reaches the billion point remains to be seen, but Allard informing the hardest of the hard-core that gaming should be for everyone was a telling moment.

The event quickly reverted back to its hard-core roots, however. There were new titles like "Quake 4" to announce and noisy techno music from The Chemical Brothers to listen to.